A Portrait of a Beautiful Rebel

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A review of One Breath by Adam Skolnick.

Social media provides access to a constantly updated news feed. Long gone are the days of channel surfing, we simply use our index finger to scroll through a never ending, glowing ribbon of information, tailored to our specific interests. A side effect of our realtime media culture is the belief that we are fully informed about our interests. One interest dear to me is freediving — the art of underwater diving that relies on the diver’s ability to hold their breath rather than the use of breathing devices.

On November 17, 2013, American freediver Nicholas Mevoli lost his life while competing in the Vertical Blue competition at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas. I thought I had a clear picture in my mind of Nicholas ‘Nick’ Mevoli after reading about the tragedy on Facebook. Our handheld devices and the social platforms that run on them may keep us informed, but the temptation to respond immediately to each new piece of information has made us all a lot more judgmental. Without meeting the man, I had categorised Nicholas Mevoli as reckless and irresponsible. I now feel crummy for doing so after reading One Breath by Adam Skolnick. Adam has provided a much richer picture of Nick, one that was impossible to glean just from the dry facts surrounding the tragedy that unfolded in November of 2013.

Adam was on a routine assignment to Long Island, Bahamas to cover the Vertical Blue competition for the The New York Times. Those interested in the sport know this competition as the ‘Wimbledon’ of freediving. To a journalist (and almost everyone else) such as Adam though, it was simply another competition in a niche adventure sport. When Nick died during the competition, the scope of Adam’s assignment changed and he ended up crafting an intimate look at Nicholas Mevoli’s life up until the tragedy. The narrative of his life is interwoven with a detailed account of the sport of competitive freediving and many of the people involved.

Nick’s progress in the sport was nothing short of blistering. Although he regularly spearfished and caught lobsters on breath-hold with his uncle, Nick only started training with a freediving club in 2011. His first training dives were in a flooded quarry in Pennsylvania. While growing up in Florida, Nick had aspirations of qualifying to compete on his BMX at the X Games. While that did not pan out, the focus and determination he developed was channelled into this new aquatic sport. Only two years after beginning training, he was the first American to reach 100m depth at the Caribbean Cup in Roatán.

Nicholas Mevoli’s final freediving competition is intercut with chapters from his life in and out of the sport. Adam Skolnick masterfully provides a space for Nick to live and breathe in these pages. It is a credit to the author that I found the non-freediving parts of the book compelling and I was reluctant as a reader to return to the competition scenes. I wanted to linger with Nicholas, a soulful, impulsive individual. I smiled reading about the time he impulsively drove six-and-a-half hours to see a girl he only just met. Then there are the touching accounts — him dropping everything to help his sister prepare for an important exam after she received a cancer diagnosis. There are also his ongoing efforts to help a girl with Multiple Sclerosis, whom Nick encouraged to embrace life’s opportunities.

Towards himself though, Nick could be brutal. Those who push the envelope are often their own fiercest critics and if Nick did not achieve his target depth on a dive, he would excoriate himself and brood. Pushing the envelope in deep freediving means the possibility of a lung squeeze — negative pressure in the lungs causing the lung walls to stick together and cause damage as they peel apart. The blood vessels can swell up and burst, causing bleeding inside the lungs (pulmonary edema). The diver coughs in reaction to remove the bloody fluid from their lungs. There are many scenes in One Breath of athletes spitting blood into their palms after a dive, Nick included.

Two months before his death, the book covers the 2013 Individual Depth World Championships in Kalamata, Greece. I found this part of the narrative riveting, as it provides a remarkable snapshot of competitive freediving culture at the time. Lung squeezes were considered more of an inconvenience than an acute injury, placing Nick’s misfortune soon after at Vertical Blue into a much wider context. After his passing, Mike Board, Nick’s fellow freediver and current British record holder offered a moment of candour:

“I dive for numbers and I think all of us here, we all dive for numbers. And the thing is, Nick didn’t know he could die. He didn’t know that was even possible. None of us did.”

Competitive freediving contains two contrary principles that warily circle each other, creating tension. A good freedive instructor will help you appreciate the value of ‘letting go’ and enjoying the dive as reward in itself, but that approach seems to fly in the face of the need to compete, push your limits and score points based on depth. There is not a lot of money in the sport and most divers are self-funded. Traveling to competitions is expensive, so if I had spent tens-of-thousands of dollars to attend a couple of competitions, blissful meditation would be the furthest thing from my mind. The sport of freediving is a paradox, but if we’re honest, we all are. If the harrowing scenes in One Breath of Nick punishing himself make us uncomfortable, perhaps it’s because we recognise a little part of ourselves in him.

Nick’s life is the story of all brave souls who push human limits, rebelling against convention and societal expectations. We are happy to hand out praise to those who succeed and get away with flirting with danger but One Breath has impressed upon me that we should temper our criticism of those who experience misfortune. People are far more than just their mistakes or an entry in our newsfeed. Nicholas Mevoli is no longer with us, but his presence is still felt. The sport of competitive freediving can only benefit from careful reflection in the wake of his accident. A reflection that was only made possible from the light that burned intensely from Nicholas ‘Nick’ Mevoli, a beautiful rebel.

One Breath, Freediving, Death and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits by Adam Skolnick (published by Crown Archetype) is available in hardcover and Ebook editions. This review was of the Amazon Kindle edition.

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One Reply to “A Portrait of a Beautiful Rebel”

  1. Tim, what a beautifully written review, of what sounds like a beautifully written book. Being an amateur freediver and having an intense interest in human relationships and psychology, I am now keen to read this story … not just for the sake of reading a good book, but to give credit to the life of ‘Nick’ and to the author Adam Skolnick, for his skill and time invested in writing ‘One Breath’.

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